Into this clergy status anxiety steps Pope Francis. He has basically removed the title of Monsignor (those who hold the title currently may retain it). Reaction to this has been, “it’s just a rumour”, “do you hear that sound? it’s the sound of heads popping in the Presbytery”, or defence of the title (accompanied by a photograph of the defender in the distinguishing monsignor vesture), and even the suggestion Pope Francis would do well to get a food taster.
Back to Anglicans, there are Right Revenerends, Most Reverends, Very Reverends, Canons, Venerables, Doctors, Archdeacons, Deacons, Rural Deans, Deans, Non-stipendiary acting priest assistants, Locally Licensed Ordained Non-stipendiary Assistant Ministers, Vicars, Vicar-General, Deputy Vicar General, Priests in Charge, Presiding Bishops, Senior Bishops, Archbishops, Deacon Assistants, Ministry Educators, Chaplains, … the list goes on …
Each with their title, abbreviation, appropriate way to address them or refer to them, order of titles, an ever-increasing number of plusses in front of names… and distinguishing dress and insignia.
Anglican clergy may not know their Greek Aorist from their Dative, but years of training make certain that one doesn’t confuse The Ven. Canon Dr. with The Very Rev. Mr. And if you receive an award, title, or doctorate after ordination, there are careful protocols, stricter than any adherence to doctrine or discipline, about which comes before or after what. The moment a priest is collated (and never confuse ordination, induction, collation, installation, licensing,…!!), out go all the old letterheads and visiting cards to be replaced by flashier ones with new titles and the latest popular font.
Anglican theological debate is at its deepest in discussions whether an archdeacon is above or below a canon.
And the thought of backsliding to a lower status causes such distress in the ageing prelates that you generally retire with the highest title you have attained, whether or not you still function in the role the title would lead one to understand.
Ignatius Loyola, founder of the Jesuits, (the Order to which Pope Francis belongs, and in which spirituality he is clearly deeply formed), in the Principle and Foundation of his Spiritual Exercises challenges us not to prefer riches to poverty, or honour to dishonour [notice the echoes in many of Pope Francis’ actions so far]. My one desire and choice should be what is more conducive to reaching the goal for which I am created – praise, reverence, and service of God. And in Ignatius’ Meditation on the Standard of Christ, Jesus attracts to poverty and humility.
Mark Twain said, “Clothes make the man. Naked people have little or no influence on society.” Anglicans, don’t you dare put on the wrong clothing! Priests may wear clergy shirts coloured pink or blue or polka-dot, but dare to put on one with even a purplish tinge and you won’t make it through the day without a comment. And dare to wear a pectoral cross – even out of devotion! Or a large bejewelled ring. I’ve seen an official photo of a NZ bishop with no less than three pectoral crosses on.
At significant services, everyone has their appropriate attire to signal not only their status but where they fit in churchmanship (or whatever the inclusive version of that is). Light blue cassocks and matching preaching scarves for canons, copes for archdeacons or above, biretta or cassock and surplice for churchmanship, mitre and cope, mitre and chasuble, biretta with chasuble, no mitre with rochet and chimere,… Not a cope above one’s station. Not a blue scarf out of place.
We can continue to pretend that status is not an issue in the church. We are all equal. Clericalism is not an issue. Recently there was some discussion about a video examining Christendom. The video tried to brush over status: it claimed that the Church “inadvertently” came to hold power in Western history. I loved the response: “Oh, is that palace for me? Goodness! I had no idea.”
I’ve heard a lot of agreement with Pope Francis, and seen a lot of Anglican enthusiasm for him, rah! rah! rah! But I have yet to hear even a single mention in Anglican circles of his wanting simplification of titles and levelling of status…